Age of kids: Two sons, 6 and 8
I’ve started writing this guest post twice already on paper, and many more times in my head, which, when I think about it, says quite a lot about both parenting and writing. We draft, revise, think, overthink, repeat, forget and remember—and start again, with new ideas, and some of the same. During this writing-in-my-head period, I’ve also been wishing for what I might write down to be more positive than what I’ve been saying too often lately: I’m not writing enough. I’m barely writing at all. Last week, thinking about this, I reminded myself of the four manuscripts, one in a drawer, and a second one revised and wizened, well-versed in the vagaries of market and timing and fraught content; and two others in revision. It’s those last two that get me, with their in-between state. Like children in grade school, they are formed, full of personality and habits of their own; but they still need support. They need me. And I am hesitant to let them go—into the world on their own.
My two sons need me, too. Almost every day, I find myself confronting again the inadequacies of time, the push and pull between demands of work, needs of family, and my needs; writing the dominant inhabitant of that final category. But, really, writing converges in all of those. I am a better parent, and a better person, when I am writing; when I have permission to let my mind find the places it’s been worrying, the people and characters it struggles to understand—lives stepped into, inhabited. Yes, sometimes, it is a strain to step back out. But I recognize how much I love this strain—need it—the pressure to be lost in a world of my own making. Which is not the same as a world in my control, and I wouldn’t want it to be. And with the pressure to return to the shared real world, comes the reward of the people I care for, and love, around me. My family, my husband, those two sweet faces, the small arms with their hugs so fierce, and their bodies growing, such that I have to remind them, tame them, now, when they wrap their arms round me: not too hard. But I love how hard, how heartily and fiercely, they love me; how they want to squeeze it into me, or squeeze my love out and into them.
I started writing characters with children before I had children of my own. My boys are six and almost nine—almost half way to college, that small boy growing so big, and this scares me. How fast time is moving. How hard I struggle to keep up. How long my themes have percolated. And then, turning the corner, I see merits in this gestation, the length of the drive; and how slowly it now seems I work.
Fourteen years ago, I began a novel set during the war in Yugoslavia. As a younger woman, twenty-two, twenty-three, I wanted to be there, in the midst of that war, in Sarajevo, a city under siege in the middle of Europe, a continent again confronting genocide. I wrote that novel, the first draft, mostly before my first son, J, was born. Well into it, I sat in coffee shops in London, my belly bursting with him, moving through Meg’s abortion, the birth of Mirjana’s first child during war, the birth of her second, soon wrested into motherlessness, followed by a reshaping of what parenting might mean. Meg looked back, confronted a woman eviscerated by earlier war, Julia, and saw how Julia began to reshape and retrieve a new reality, wary of parenthood; and yet deeply besotted with the resultant grandson, Daniel, again faced with war; but this time as a choice. That grandson, Daniel, held more of me than Meg, the narrator who loved him, suffering for it and then being remade because of him, because of war. Remade into a mother. Now I wonder if it wasn’t an act of cowardice, telling that particular war story from the vantage point of a woman on the sidelines, entirely affected by war, but not immersed directly in it. Her immersion second-hand.
We still think of war stories as men’s stories. Our literature represents this, too. Now I spend time weekly with veterans, mostly men, in a writing workshop I teach—among the most fulfilling endeavors I’ve undertaken. The work and words in that room, the preparation for it, feel, internally, as kindred and appropriate as the side of the equation Meg should represent to me in that novel, and as true as Daniel did. These events and perspectives, woman and man, children and war, all wrapped up in human urgencies, meet on a playing field where stepping into someone else’s shoes—repeated acts of empathy, of placement and displacement—can make someone else’s experiences our own. Distinct yet overlapping iterations of the human condition grow less disparate than they seem. What came next into my own life both evolved from and contrasted with that novel and its characters—their births and wars—as the manuscript came into its then-shape.
I gave birth.
I write that sentence and want to let it sit there, let it fill up.
I gave birth to J, who continues to teach and reshape me every day, almost nine years later. And I continued to give birth to that novel, Down the Street a Building Burned. I couldn’t leave that street, the burning building. I was becoming mother, Mama, Mummy, Mom, before J was even born—becoming his mother, becoming G’s mother, yet to arrive two and a half years after—and becoming the woman who would keep writing. Insisting on remaining—myself.
Between J’s birth and G’s, I wrote a new novel in a fever-dream. Four months from chapter two until page four-hundred, between J’s fourteenth month, just after he learned to walk, I realize as I look back, and his eighteenth. Nappies and breast milk and pen, paper, keyboard, stolen hours. Nap times, weekend afternoons. When I traveled by metro with him across London, eager for movement and journeys and glimpses of other lives, riding the tube, the top of his stroller (his “buggy,” we called it, the grey MacLaren that lasted through two babyhoods, two toddlers)—the top of that stroller became my desk, notepad propped across it, and I was somewhere else, and I was still there, and I was fractured into multiples, and yet so whole in those moments, as I fired characters across a landscape of adultery, motherhood, family secrets, death. Still confronting and collapsing, rebuilding and deciphering, some events that had touched my life directly, and others that had touched me through a deceptive distance.
Pregnant with G, my second son, young J vomiting with stomach flu, my belly again rounded, large, full, I wrote an essay about trying to find—the new reality I was living. “The Invention of You,” the essay was eventually titled, coming from a line from a Philip Roth novel, The Prague Orgy. “No, one’s story isn’t a skin to be shed—it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you.” I was writing life—lives of others—in order to inhabit my own. I lived in my own, insistent on holding it tight, while still grabbing for more.
Women—mothers—are not really supposed to be so greedy. Even now. And I fear I’ve learned this. I revise; I write in too-small bursts. I teach, and try to build something else that seems bigger than me, Voices from War, a space for veterans and their stories, a bridge to civilians who live in a world often untouched by wars. I am busier than I know how to be—and often I perceive this as the richness of my life, my good fortune—and yet I am squelching the hunger for more. For that giving over that comes of living in a world that arrives completely from one’s self, from one’s own writing pen, and yet is magically outside of one’s control. As a parent I feel this too—the magic of these two beings so proximate to me and yet so distinct, and sometimes the fear and helplessness. If I found more magic—wrote wholly from where I am now, from the invention of me that I know remains…incomplete—I might be a phoenix—flying, higher, higher, believing in worlds where truth is what we unearth, not just the facts of what exists. That is a power that seduces, that causes fear.
I am reading the second Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets aloud to G. We’ve just arrived at Harry, deep in the chamber, joined by the brilliant crimson phoenix, and the “sorting hat,” teller of truth and future, bestower of knowledge and destiny. And how have they appeared? Because Harry believed—he believed Dumbledore, benevolent and mystical wizard, remained with him, and then he was. This is how I write now. This is the writer I am—writing too little, yet knowing. Writer. However small the word, the power of all it conveys and enables, it is still here. I still inhabit words, and wear the writer’s invisible cloak.
Each day, I wake up, remind myself. And this is not enough. And so I remind myself of this too. With all I have, I know there is more; and writing is about finding it. Not-writing is about waiting.
Whatever I’ve written here today has leapt pretty far from the two beginnings I haven’t yet returned to. And yet I think I see the threads, thin and gilded, their glint just below the surface, like the themes I return to, again and again.
Living and dying; what we do to each other in between.
One of those beginnings began with an ending: my father’s death, a suicide, an event that has filled the space before and after with revisions and stories and attempts to make sense of paths followed, paths ignored running up against paths taken. Some of the paths invisible, still.
In my other beginning, I wished my mother a happy birthday. Her birthday, a milestone decade this year, arrives in tandem with this posting. As with DNA, I can trace so much back to the lives of these two irreplaceable people. Including the phantom of my father’s absence, utterly entwined with his presence, before his death and since. Including my mother with her loving, strong-willed independence, head of household, through divorce not death, for most of my childhood years, in a kingdom of women: where I learned how to see and how to lead, how to watch and wish. How to love and honor—children and stories. Not as separate and competing demands; but as interlocked continuations, the inventions and evolutions we need. These are narratives grounded in realism, and they are magical.